Sunday, March 31, 2024



3/26/24 Inktense Blocks in Hahnemuhle sketchbook

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a bouquet of tulips from a grower who sets up a kiosk at the neighborhood 76 station every spring. I intended to sketch them at some point, but then I got busy with cherry blossoms and never got around to them when they looked so beautiful on the kitchen counter.

Truthfully, though, I have a fondness for flowers when they are just about to hit the compost bin. To sketch, I like them even better that way than when they are new. Twisted like raw silk, petals often with more complex hues than when they were fresh, tulips die with an elegant grace that gives me permission to be loose and expressive.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Limited Palette for the Petra


Color journal page with results for the Petra palette

Now that I’ve finally reviewed my latest standing watercolor palette, the Peg & Awl Petra, I can get to the paint colors currently filling the six non-standard half pans. As a long-time fan of limited palettes when using watercolor pencils, narrowing the colors to six was basically a refinement of the same principles I have been using for quite a while. I got a solid start on those principles with the previous standing palette, which contained 11 colors, then eliminated several.

This sketch of the UW Quad cherry trees was made with the CYM primary triad named.
 I used a pink pencil to add texture to the blossoms.
What made the cut? First, I chose Phthalo Turquoise, Lemon Yellow and Quinacridone Magenta as my CYM primary triad (all Winsor & Newton, although I’m not necessarily brand-loyal to WN – they are just what I have now in those hues; I ran out of Phthalo Turquoise with this fill, so I replaced that tube with a Daniel Smith).

Green and violet: My favorite mix for darks

Then, because I’m smitten with mixing darks from a secondary triad, especially green and violet, I put in Daniel Smith Deep Sap (which also makes an excellent fir tree green when I add a bit of blue to it) and Daniel Smith Carbazole Violet. I left out orange for now because I hardly need it for urban sketching, and it’s easy enough to mix.

(You might say that all the secondaries are easy to mix from the right primaries, and you’d be right. With all my other practical considerations on location, though, it’s simply more efficient and cleaner to use good secondaries straight from the tube rather than risk getting a big puddle of mud on a small mixing tray.)

In addition, I considered this important question: Why would I choose to use paints on location instead of watercolor pencils? The answer always comes down to trees and foliage. For almost any other kind of subject matter, it’s just as easy or easier to use pencils, but when I see a multi-hued maple in October or a fully blossomed cherry in March, it seems to cry out for paint. The selection is necessarily seasonal, so for this first filling, I reserved a pan for a pre-mixed pink. It’s mostly white gouache with a tiny touch of Primary Magenta and an even tinier touch of Primary Yellow to warm it up (all from the Holbein CYMK mixing set). After cherry season is over, I’ll clean out the pan and probably refill it with orange.

The swatches at the top of the post show the results of various color-mixing experiments in my color journal that helped me decide which paints to choose.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Review: Peg & Awl Petra Painter’s Palette

Closed Petra Palette (with standard-size fountain pen for scale)

Paint pans and mixing tray next to each other on one stable platform.

I’ve teased in a couple of recent posts about my latest standing watercolor palette, and I finally finished taking enough photos to reveal it: the Peg & Awl Petra Painter’s Palette.

Process-oriented sketcher that I am, before I get to the review (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I must address briefly the last palette I used and why it didn’t work.

The last standing palette I used had a tri-fold
tray design.

After trying a few others prompted me to think more about what I need in a standing palette for sketching on location, I had decided that the key element is a thumb loop on the bottom. Without one, I can’t hold the palette with one hand while also juggling a sketchbook in the same hand. The one I chose for being lightweight and compact is an inexpensive, generic one I picked up on Amazon (shown at left).

With a fairly large capacity of half pans and two generous mixing trays, it seemed like it could work. I gave it a valiant try last fall, and it got me through several sketches, but not easily. The tri-fold design made it difficult to hold steadily without the mixed paint dripping one way or another. Depending on which direction I was holding the sketchbook, the mixing trays always seemed to block some part of it, as there’s no way to fold one side down without concealing the paint pans.

Using it taught me that another requirement is that both the palette and the mixing area must fit in the palm of my hand while also being steadied by a thumb or finger loop – and the whole setup must be small enough not to block the sketchbook. Tiny palettes proliferate, so I had no shortage of options, but it seemed like they were all either the right size or had a loop, but not both. In particular, I looked at Art Toolkits many times for their appealing sizes and customizable configurations, but none has a loop.

Enter the Peg & Awl Petra Palette. Peg & Awl makes several designs of compact paint palettes, all designed to fit in both of the Pennsylvania company’s Sendak artist roll and mini Sendak roll. I haven’t been carrying the Petra in one of my rolls, but it’s nice to know it fits well in either if I decide to do that.

Like all of Peg & Awl's paint palettes, the Petra fits neatly inside a pocket of the mini Sendak roll (shown here) and the standard-size Sendak.

The main reason I was attracted to the Petra design is that configuration places both the palette and the mixing area next to each other on a single, wood platform. Unfortunately, it does not come with a thumb loop, so I contacted Peg & Awl to see if they would be willing to attach an additional strap (like the one that secures the leather cover) on the back to serve as a loop. They weren’t able to accommodate my request during the busy holiday season when I wanted to take advantage of their sale. I bought it anyway – with the intention of rigging up my own loop somehow.

The solution I devised was about as simple (and low cost) as could be: a Field Notes Band of Rubber, which the notebook maker often includes free with orders. It’s thin, lightweight and a snap (ha) to attach. Instead of a thumb, I slip my second and third fingers under the band, keeping the palette secure in my palm. The palette’s 2 ½-inch width is comfortable to grip.

Two fingers secured in back.

A simple Band of Rubber does the trick!

The paint pans, longer than half pans but perhaps a little shallower, are simple cut-outs in the wood palette (made of US-grown sustainable maple). Although I had acquired it before the holidays, one reason I hadn’t filled it until this month is that I knew the pans would be difficult to clean out compared to removable half pans, so I wanted to think long and hard about which six colors to include (I’ll write a separate post about the colors I chose, as that was a whole separate process).

Paint pans filled at last.

The mixing tray is “sealed with natural EcoPoxy,” which feels smooth and almost glassy. I wondered what it would be like as a mixing surface, but watercolor does not bead up, even on first use (which is a problem with slick metal surfaces and even some plastic ones).

A simple leather flap covers the palette and secures with a leather band similar to a belt loop. It’s a clean, simple design that appeals to me esthetically and practically: nothing unessential here.

My first trials of the Petra were just in time for cherry blossom season, which was the sole reason I included pink in the palette. As expected, the rubberband secured the palette to my hand sufficiently. It’s difficult to see in my photos (as usual, I needed a third hand to photograph this setup adequately), but most of the palette rests on the sketchbook while my hand is underneath the sketchbook with two fingers attached to the palette. It works ideally when I’m sketching with the book in the vertical orientation so that the palette can rest on the page not in use. When sketching in the horizontal orientation, there’s no space to rest the palette, so it’s more of a juggle.

Hard to see, but my fingers are back there.

Although the Petra palette is working better than all the other standing palettes I’ve tried, it’s still an overall struggle. Once my right hand is literally tied up with the palette, it’s not free to do anything else, so my left hand has to do all the work. I don’t mean the painting (which is easy enough one-handed); it’s removing the cap from the waterbrush and spritzer that’s hard!

I’m not ready to give up on urban sketching with paints, but I may eventually have to concede and resort to one of two things: Either sit to paint (like most sketchers do) or stay at my desk to paint, neither of which makes me happy. I’ll probably know by the end of summer whether this works for me or not.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Empire Roasters and Records


3/25/24 Empire Roasters & Records, Columbia City

Kate, Roy and I decided to explore a venue new to all of us: Empire Roasters & Records in Columbia City in south Seattle. As its name implies, it’s a coffee roaster, café and a vinyl record shop. Most interesting to me, though, was that the third floor seating area was furnished with numerous tables, benches and chairs made of beautiful raw edge wood. The scribble you see at lower left, however, was not a piece of furniture – it was a potted aspidistra in front of a window that didn’t come out quite as I had intended. Still, a morning of sketching and chatting with friends is always a good time, regardless of the sketch outcome.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Pink on Capitol Hill


3/24/24 Capitol Hill neighborhood

Until I had learned about it from my yoga instructor last year
, I didn’t know that this usually quiet street on Capitol Hill needed to be a permanent addition to my petal-peeping tour. I sketched there with a few friends then, but this year I felt greedy if I didn’t share it with USk Seattle. I even ordered up some sunshine that was delivered just in time for our outing on Sunday afternoon. The rain and wind the past few days had already sprinkled pink snow on the pavement, but we caught the blossoms just in time before they passed their peak.

To give gouache another try, I found a typical Capitol Hill bungalow framed by pink on this residential street (at left). Then I followed my ears to the other end of the block, where a teenage violinist was busking for all the petal peepers (below). From the looks of the cash in his violin case, he seemed to be doing a brisk business, and he certainly gave a pleasant soundtrack to our pink fairyland.

When I turned around, I spotted a sketcher dwarfed by an enormous cherry behind him (top of post). Frustrated (as usual) by the gouache and watercolor I had used previously, I resorted to my tried-and-true brush pen and watercolor pencils. (I’m not sure why I keep trying paints when I like the results of my “usuals” so much more.)

Although sketching the cherries at the UW Quad will always be a mainstay, I have to admit that I prefer neighborhood streets like this one and my favorite in the Sunset Hill neighborhood. There’s something special about walking slowly down the middle of a residential street (moving to the sidewalk when occasional cars come through, always slowly as their drivers and passengers take in the splendor) lined with these majestic trees on both sides. I imagine it must be especially magical for the residents who wait for their block to transform each spring.

Note: My sketch of these trees last year is dated April 13 – three full weeks later than this year. A recent article in the Seattle Times talks about how the dates of cherry blossom peaks are giving researchers data about climate change.


Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Sunset Hill Cherries Redux (Abstraction Homework)


3/21/24 cherry trees, Sunset Hill neighborhood (Inktense Blocks)

3/21/24 Inktense Block and Inktense pencil

After sketching them last week, I had two reasons to go back to the Sunset Hill cherry trees: One was that they were not quite at peak then, and I wanted to see them when they were (and boy, were they ever!). The second was that I wasn’t too happy with my gouache sketch that time, and I wanted another try.

Freshly inspired by the previous day’s class on abstracting landscapes, I combined that idea with the minimalism practice from the previous week’s class. With wet media like gouache, I’m always tempted to paint roundish blobs to evoke the shape of blossom clusters, but it never looks good to me. Using only Derwent Inktense Blocks (black and magenta) and a pink Inktense pencil, I squinted my eyes at those fairyland trees to minimize details and drew only the main trunk lines and the haze of blossoms. I like these attempts much better.

Peak blossoms!

Fairyland comes alive!

My favorite tree on this block... more for its amazing roots than its blossoms.

Monday, March 25, 2024

“Unique Line” Class Catch-Up

3/13/24 minimalism (photo reference)
3/13/24 maximalism (photo reference)

I’ve been so busy with 100 People, life drawing, cherry blossoms and other fun what-not that I’m two weeks behind in talking about my Gage class with Gal Cohen, Find Your Unique Line. With only one more class left, I feel like I’m just getting started with having my eyes opened to new ways of seeing, imagining and drawing.


The topic two weeks ago was minimalism vs. maximalism. As always, Gal began class by showing us numerous examples of contemporary art that could be described as either minimal or maximal. She chose interior domestic scenes as the subject. How little can be drawn and still evoke a sense of “enough”? Conversely, is a drawing that is densely packed with linework, marks and color ever “too much”? The point was not to determine whether one or the other was preferable or better but simply to ask how well a piece accomplishes its objective by taking one approach or the other. As always, we also discussed how the specific materials and techniques used helped to accomplish the artist’s intentions.

During class we used photo references of a couple of interior scenes and drew them either minimally or maximally (top of post). My natural style is to tend toward minimalism, so that exercise was easy for me. Going the max was a greater challenge; I kept thinking, “This is enough,” but then I pushed myself to keep going.

The homework was to draw either a domestic scene from life or from a photo with minimalism or maximalism in mind (below). She encouraged us to use color if the drawings called for it. I sketched a cluttered corner of my studio twice, once with each approach. The minimal approach was easy (and I chuckled about how I wished it were as easy to clear the clutter from my studio as it was to simply avoid drawing it). As expected, the maximal approach was more challenging, perhaps especially because I did it after the minimal version and was tired of doing it a second time. Still, I pushed myself to keep adding more and more stuff. I even added more clutter than was actually there!

3/17/24 minimalism (from life)

3/18/24 maximalism (from life)


Last week’s class focused on landscapes as the subject and pushing them toward abstraction with values and shapes (below). Making somewhat abstract drawings from a realistic photo reference is a serious struggle for me, so I especially welcomed this exercise. 

Using photos was hard enough, but I tried to imagine doing the same exercise from life – it’s so much harder to abstract what I “really” see! My trepidation meant that the exercise was important for me to do. Stay tuned for the results.

3/20/24 photo reference

3/20/24 photo references

3/20/24 photo reference

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Tulip Times Two


3/10/24 Tulip (both reference photos by Sandie Frakes)

Although I’m taking a break from pet portraits for a while, I had promised two to a donor who had been looking for good reference photos of her pooch Tulip. The first one she sent wasn’t very well lighted, but it seemed like a good candidate for messy hatching (left), which matched Tulip’s messy beard. I had a lot of fun drawing that fur.

The second photo that she sent later was worth waiting for: It was among the best pet reference photos I had used in that it was taken next to a window, casting beautiful light on one side of Tulip’s face. Most of the drawing was done with colored pencils, but I had made an underpainting with Viarco ArtGraf water-soluble graphite on the shaded side. It helped the pencil work to go faster, and it also served as a map so that I wouldn’t inadvertently color too much of the areas I wanted to reserve as the lightest.

Polychromos colored pencils and black, brown and gray technical pens in various sizes

ArtGraf water-soluble graphite underpainting

Polychromos and Museum Aquarelle colored pencils and
Uni Pin technical pen

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Fabulous Weather, Usual Frustrations at the Quad

3/19/24 cherry trees, University of Washington Quad (watercolors in a primary triad plus Derwent Inktense pencils in pink and green in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook. I love how easy it was to give texture to the blossoms with a pink pencil -- an ideal use of pencil in a mixed-media piece like this.)

Using the search term “Quad” on my blog, I pulled up posts as far back as 2013, which was probably the first time I attempted to sketch the blossoming cherry trees on the University of Washington campus. Other than the pandemic pause, I think I’ve sketched the blossoms there every year, usually with USk Seattle. It never gets easier – simplifying the massive complexity; trying to capture that ethereal near-white hue and sheer volume of dense blossoms; the inevitable crowds of people; the backdrop of the Quad’s stately buildings. Every year I come away feeling a bit disappointed that I still haven’t figured out how to nail them, which encourages me to try something different the following year.

Watercolor pencil, watercolor and gouache in
Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

And so it was again last Tuesday, when USk Seattle was treated to phenomenal weather – clear skies and temps in the 60s – an ideal afternoon to meet my annual frustrations. I made a total of four sketches, each with a different mix of materials or approaches (materials listed in the cutlines), and all with a limited color palette. For one, I premixed pink gouache (mostly white with a touch of magenta and yellow, all from the Holbein CYMK primary set) before putting it in my new palette (I promise I’ll show it soon). I also used watercolor and Derwent Inktense Blocks. To push myself out of my comfort zone, I minimized use of my tried-and-true watercolor pencils. During the last 20 minutes or so before the throwdown, I ran out of steam and did a comic-style spread in my green Uglybook – ahhh, so familiar and comforting!

Overall, my goal was to emulate my main takeaway from Harumichi Shibasaki’s YouTube that I mentioned in yesterday’s post, which is to make the blossom shadows much darker than I would otherwise dare. Based on his principles, I could have gone even darker without going too far. I hope to have at least one more chance to give this principle a try before another fleeting Sakura season is over.

Derwent Inktense Blocks in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook

Uni Pin brush pen and Pentel Milky acrylic paint marker in Uglybook

Despite my frustrations, it's impossible to walk through this spectacle without feeling the joy and freshness of spring!

Friday, March 22, 2024

The Pink is On!


3/18/24 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Last weekend, all the cherry trees in town started exploding with pink! Our recent spate of good weather pushed them along nicely – just before several days of rain. Seeing the forecast ahead, I went out Monday intent on catching pink wherever I could.

I didn’t have to go far: On my morning walk, I found this old tree just a few blocks from home. I walk that route frequently, and it seemed to have bloomed overnight.

That afternoon, I went on a scouting mission to Sunset Hill, a favorite stop on my annual petal peeping tour. Those trees are usually a week or two behind the University of Washington Quad’s cherries, which were nearing peak at that point. I was surprised to find them closer to peak than anticipated – perhaps only a few days behind the Quad. Expecting to come back later, I decided to sketch them then and there, just in case the rain kept me from them before the petals came down.

3/18/24 Sunset Hill neighborhood

For the Sunset Hill sketch, I brought along my gouache and watercolors – contained in yet a new palette (a post on that coming soon)! Painting on location is always a more troublesome event than using my tried-and-true watercolor pencils, but every year the cherry blossoms push me to try it. This year I’m inspired by this YouTube video from Harumichi Shibasaki (Japanese with English subtitles). My jaw dropped when I saw how dark he makes the shadow areas – much darker than I would normally dare to use, especially with such pale pink blossoms – but his result is astoundingly beautiful. Emulating his example, I went as dark as I dared (though certainly without his elegance). More attempts in tomorrow’s post.

Sunset Hill: Not quite peak, but close enough!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Ravenna Brewery Bark & Brew


3/17/24 Dog Gone Seattle's Bark & Brew at Ravenna Brewery

The last time I went to a Dog Gone Seattle Bark & Brew, it was cool and drizzly. On St. Patrick’s Day, the pet rescue and adoption agency (which I support by selling my pet drawings) couldn’t have picked a better day for the dog meet-and-greet at Ravenna Brewery: 68 degrees and sunny! Dog Gone Seattle partners with dog-friendly breweries with large, outdoor seating areas for these events to introduce humans to potential pup adoptees. The beautiful day resulted in a great turnout.

Impressed by how well-behaved the dogs were, I saw a lot of them getting hugs and belly rubs from prospective parents. It’s fun to eavesdrop on various conversations, too, usually about behavior, training experience and breed speculation. Without a pet myself, I had no idea that DNA testing for dogs was a thing (just like 23 and Me for humans). Sketching the event was so much fun, even for a dog-allergic human like me!

Process notes: If you look back at my post from the previous event, you’ll see that all I managed that day were a few scribbled dogs and humans, all while bemoaning my rusty life-drawing chops. I think all the humans I sketched during last week’s One Week 100 People challenge really helped, even with canines – they’re still scribbled gestures, but I felt more confident and loose.

Given the constantly wiggling subjects and changing scenes, it was impossible to plan any compositions for the comic book approach I wanted to take. I didn’t bother to plan the box orientation; I sketched first, then drew a box around the image afterwards. Just putting a frame around individual, small images seemed to put the sketches into a “readable” page-spread narrative, and the randomness looks more organized. What do you think?

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